By Michael Roberts
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Media-friendly military specialists became a sought-after commodity months before American armed forces set foot on Iraqi soil, and once hostilities broke out, the stock of folks such as KNRC-AM analyst Andy Lightbody rose as rapidly as bombs fell. But while Lightbody frequently shared his interpretations of current events and predictions of future developments in the Middle East over the Denver airwaves, he never mentioned to his employers that he had been cut loose by a Southern California radio station during an earlier conflict between the U.S. and Iraq after a 1991 Los Angeles Times report charged him with making false assertions about his credentials.
Why not? "Because that article wasn't true," Lightbody said last week from Washington, D.C., where he was attending a Pentagon briefing for KNRC. "It was ludicrous to begin with."
KNRC program director Alan Eisenson and KNRC morning host Greg Dobbs, on whose show Lightbody has been featured regularly, expressed surprise when informed by Westword about this part of their co-worker's past. Yet neither say their confidence in him has been shaken by his failure to share the tale, despite the potential for embarrassment the Times article carries.
"I have a great deal of faith in him," Dobbs declares. "I've covered a number of wars, so I know more than the average guy in the street -- and he's never gotten it wrong so far as I know."
For his part, Eisenson says, "Unless what's said in the article is found to be true, it's not something that would bother me at all."
Robin Bertolucci, former director of AM programming for Clear Channel Denver, who now oversees Los Angeles's KFI-AM, and Jerry Bell, news director for Denver's KOA, a Clear Channel property (and KNRC rival), feel differently. Lightbody briefly contributed to KOA until, say Bertolucci and Bell, they learned about the Times critique, which he hadn't disclosed to them, either. Both recall a meeting at which Lightbody was confronted with the allegations raised by the Times, which they say he denied. Even so, they chose to end KOA's association with him.
"Regardless of if the article was true or untrue, we felt he had been disingenuous with us," Bell notes. "Relationships have to be on the basis of trust, and when he violated that trust, we were done with him."
Lightbody doesn't remember things that way. "I was never hired by KOA. I gave them some reports after TWA flight 800 went down [in 1996, near Long Island] -- maybe half a dozen over two weeks. And that was it. To the best of my knowledge, the article never came up, and if it did, they never told me."
Whatever version of this incident is correct, there's no refuting the impact the article had on Lightbody several years before. In 1991, he was based in Los Angeles, where he served as an armed-forces authority for KNX, a CBS affiliate, and KKTV, a Fox television station. Then, on April 1 of that year, the Times published an article headlined "'Military Expert' Has Gap in His Credentials: Andy Lightbody has claimed a background he doesn't have, but several media employers have expressed satisfaction with his work." The piece, written by Mark I. Pinsky, stated that "although Lightbody has claimed at various times to be a graduate of Loyola University and a former Air Force officer, he is neither, records show. He attended Loyola, but his only college degrees are from the University of Beverly Hills, a defunct, never-accredited institution." Furthermore, "his military record consists of three years as an ROTC cadet...and his highest aviation certification is a student pilot's license."
Author Pinsky went on to write that "Lightbody acknowledged that he may have 'erred' on these points in resumés, books and an earlier taped interview. He said that listing the Loyola degree in one of his books was an error, but he did not explain why he claimed to be a Loyola graduate in the earlier Times interview. The status of the University of Beverly Hills, he said, 'comes as a major shock to me.' He said that he left the ROTC program because 'the Air Force violated its contract' with him, but he did not say why a resumé submitted to one broadcast employer identifies him as 'a former Air Force officer.'"
Elsewhere in his account, Pinsky quizzed individuals with assorted opinions about Lightbody's work. For instance, Benjamin F. Schemmer, editor of Armed Forces Journal International, for which Lightbody served as broadcast editor, said he'd received a few complaints about the accuracy of the analyst's reporting; nonetheless, Lightbody's contract was allowed to lapse because of budgetary constraints, not imprecise prose. In contrast, KNX news director Robert Sims and KKTV news director Dick Tuininga spoke about Lightbody in largely positive terms -- but after Pinsky's report was published, their actions contradicted these earlier observations. An April 10, 1991, Times followup by Pinsky revealed that Sims and KNX "severed relations" with Lightbody on April 2, immediately after the first piece saw print. As for Tuininga, he declined to say whether KKTV would renew its contract with Lightbody -- which ended the day before the first Times item ran -- but said, "We do not have anything on the burner for him."
Last week, Lightbody reacted with irritation to inquiries about the Times article, which he characterized as being wrong from top to bottom: "The whole thing was a slam. I never said any of those things, and I don't know why I was the subject of that attack." He points out that he wrote to the Times after the April 1 offering; in the excerpts of his letter published in Pinsky's April 10 effort, he refuted only the contention that he was making $10,000 a month in speaking fees (a figure provided to Pinsky by Lightbody's agent). He said he considered taking Pinsky and the Times to court, "but I checked with an attorney, and he told me trying to sue somebody like that would take years, and even if I won, I might get damages of a dollar. So I dropped it." To the question of why a reporter at the Times, one of the country's most respected newspapers, would want to libel him, Lightbody said, "You'd have to ask him that."
Tracking down Pinsky turns out to be a fairly simple matter. A veteran journalist once on the staff of the Times's Orange County edition, he became the religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel in 1995 and subsequently earned acclaim for authoring 2001's The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family, which recently received a plug from Simpsons cast members appearing on an episode of Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio. When told via e-mail about Lightbody's accusations, Pinsky refused to rise to the bait. "The piece began as a column item," he writes, "and became a news story. It was accurate. No retraction, correction or legal action followed."
After being dumped by KNX, Lightbody quickly lined up another radio gig in Los Angeles; he was chosen to serve as an aviation analyst at KBLA, which specialized in business news. John Darin, who hired Lightbody at KBLA and is now a semi-retired radio consultant living in Utah, wasn't put off by the Times article, which he calls a "hatchet job. Andy never represented himself to me as anyone other than who he was. He never portrayed himself as an expert, just a journalist with a lot of good contacts."
Darin says Lightbody did first-rate reporting at KBLA, but the station's format changed about a year later, putting the analyst out of a job. Lightbody relocated to Colorado, where he formed his own television production company, Rocky Mountain Television Network. He also continued to share his military know-how on radio stations such as WMAL-AM, an ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. When he offered to do the same for KNRC as the latest conflict with Iraq loomed, program director Eisenson checked with WMAL staffers and received a strong recommendation of the sort offered by Chris Berry, the outlet's president and general manager.
"There are a lot of people out there who claim to be experts on things," Berry says, "but over the years, consistency is what separates the wheat from the chaff, and Andy is very consistent. He knows what he's talking about. I wouldn't hesitate to put him on the air anytime, anyplace."
Eisenson soon felt the same way. "Andy offered himself as a guest on various talk shows to prove himself. It was a trial run," he says. "He did really well, and that, plus the endorsement from the folks at ABC, convinced us to make it permanent."
That listeners of KNRC responded well to Lightbody makes sense: He's a radio natural with a very accessible style. Whereas Bob Newman, the military analyst for Clear Channel, who's parlayed his newfound celebrity into a co-hosting role alongside Scott Redmond on KHOW's afternoon-drive program, effortlessly rattles off model numbers, obscure regulations and other military minutiae, Lightbody often speaks in generalities, which implies to some observers that he's less knowledgeable than his better-known competitor. Not so, insists Dobbs, who says Lightbody has been specifically asked to focus on the big picture, not every tiny detail.
"I don't think that makes good radio," Dobbs says. "Who gives a damn about the designator on the tail of the aircraft? What people want to know about are its capabilities." As for Newman, Dobbs feels he's "a military cheerleader who doesn't appear to discriminate about the information he delivers. He's strictly there to wave the pompoms and is downright rude and unwilling to listen to any callers with a different point of view. That's why I much prefer Andy, who's an analyst, not an advocate, and provides information based on his contacts and education."
During Dobbs's April 7 program, in response to an e-mailer asking about his qualifications, Lightbody said he'd previously served as an editor for assorted military magazines and is the author of numerous books and publications that focus on defense issues and equipment. "I don't consider myself to be an expert," he added. "The experts are the people I talk to." As it turns out, all of these statements are accurate. On top of his work for Armed Forces Journal International and other periodicals aimed at similar audiences, he also wrote or co-wrote books such as The Complete Guide to Top Gun: America's Flying Aces and Helicopter Fighters: Warbirds of Battle. (Many of his titles are out of print, but he's currently represented in bookstores and on Web sites by 2002's Winter Trails Colorado, 2nd Edition: The Best Cross-Country and Snowshoe Trails, one of several outdoors-related titles to his credit.) Likewise, his comments about expertise in no way exaggerate his experience.
As such, WMAL's Berry, who took over his station's top spot last December, sees no reason that Lightbody should be excluded from the airwaves for sins he says he didn't commit. Unlike his counterparts at KNRC, he is quite familiar with the Times article, having been a CBS executive at the time of its original publication, but he has no doubts about Lightbody's competence. "With all the government and military personnel in Washington, I couldn't put somebody on here unless I believed they were totally buttoned-down and knew what they were talking about," he says. "It'd be suicide. And not only don't I hear complaints about Andy, but I get compliments from military people all the time." As proof, he provides three e-mails lauding Lightbody from listeners with connections to the armed forces.
Still, the impact of the Times article hasn't entirely dissipated. A source speaking on background doubts if Lightbody could get a gig discussing the military in Los Angeles because of enduring concerns initially raised by the Times. KFI's Bertolucci sees the wisdom of such caution.
"With an expert in any field, there's got to be so much credibility that there can be no question," she says. "And once there are questions, it becomes a little uncomfortable. You shouldn't have to defend the credentials of an expert; they should speak for themselves. When that became a problem with Andy Lightbody, it didn't bode well for the relationship." Since then, Bertolucci has gone out of her way not to make the same mistake again. After Bob Newman contacted Clear Channel post-9/11 to pitch his services as a military analyst, she and Bell laboriously investigated his records to make sure he was everything he claimed to be -- and he was.
The Los Angeles Times notwithstanding, Lightbody says the same can be said of him. "I'm an analyst, a commentator who's been able to line up great contacts. They've helped me do what I think I do best, which is work through a variety of military issues and military topics and explain them so that everybody has a better understanding. I'm not trying to hide anything."
Mark of the Beasties: In "Rally Time," a column that appeared in this space on April 3, the argument that Clear Channel had ordered its 1,200-plus stations to promote a pro-war message was undermined by the actions of KTCL, which had put "In a World Gone Mad," a lay-down-your-guns tune by the Beastie Boys, into regular rotation. The decision was made after Mike O'Connor, director of FM programming for Clear Channel Denver, saw the results of a pre-war Web survey in which 34 percent of the more than 2,000 respondents said the track's status as a "protest song" made them like the song more, 51 percent said it didn't change their mind one way or the other, and only 16 percent said the political stance caused them to like the song less. The positive figures were even more impressive given that, peace sentiments aside, "Mad" is pretty lame musically.
To put it mildly, the numbers didn't hold once the lead started flying. O'Connor conducted the poll again between April 7 and April 11, with 554 members of the station's "Music Mafia" weighing in. This time, just 24 percent said they liked the song better because it opposed the war (a ten-point drop), while 25 percent said they liked it less because of its theme (a nine-point increase). Out of 22 songs tested, O'Connor says the Beasties' offering "finished dead last," a ranking that led to it's being yanked from the playlist.
As O'Connor points out, "What a difference a war makes."
The race is on: Unlike its crosstown adversary, the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post didn't take home any Pulitzers this year -- but Post staffers are guaranteed to do better in a new forum. An April 18 memo announced a "Denver Post monthly writing contest" intended to "highlight the stellar reporting and writing that appears in each day's paper. Any newsroom staffer may enter the monthly writing competition. Two winners each month will receive awards of $75."
Earning this princely sum won't be easy. Entrants are required to "submit an original essay about their story, summarizing reporting/writing tips that colleagues might find useful"; moreover, they're asked to attach a "completed entry form to the front of the entry. Print entries must be NO LARGER than 8 and a half by 11 inches for ease in photocopying. Loose clippings are not acceptable." Oh, yeah: There's also an "ACCURACY REQUIREMENT" that states, "Any corrections, clarifications or retractions made after initial publishing should be submitted as part of the entry. Also, copies of any written challenges to the report's accuracy sent to the entrant or the news organizations by or on behalf of those mentioned -- including but not limited to letters, e-mails or legal papers -- must be included with the entry."
Winning this contest twice in a row could be a challenge -- because completing all of the requirements may take so long that writers won't have anything to enter the next month.